"My own preference, if I had the good fortune to have another son would be to leave his little penis alone." -Dr. Benjamin Spock, 1989

Circumcision is a touchy issue for many families. There are often strong feeling both for and against it. I have been researching the subject on the internet the past few days to find out where I stand on the matter. Here is some of what I have found: Originally, circumcision of males was done to discourage masturbation. It is somewhat effective. Foreskin functions as a sheath that makes masturbation considerably more comfortable. Masturbation without foreskin generally requires applied lubrication. Since sex experts generally agree that masturbation is both healthy and normal, I wonder what value there is in making it more difficult. 

Foreskin also works as a kind of linear bearing in sexual intercourse. This contribution may be "sorely" missed when vaginal secretions decrease after menopause. Dr. Thomas Ritter states, "Circumcised males sometimes need an additional lubricant (e.g. KY jelly) for non-irritating intercourse. The sheath within a sheath of the normal penis obviates such a need." Usually problems of dry or painful intercourse are attributed to the female, rather than the doctor who circumcised the male. 

Intact foreskin represents about one third of the highly enervated penile skin. Circumcision removes this richly erogenous tissue. As a circumcised man, I can only wonder what it would be like to have one third more nerve endings on my penis. Foreskin also protects the head of the penis from abrasive contact with clothing. Over the years the skin on the head of a circumcised male thickens from lack of protection, reducing sensitivity. 

Current reasons given for circumcision include hygienic factors, social conformity, and religious tradition. Let's take a look at each. 

When routine circumcision began to be questioned, the doctors who performed it (at $135 to $300 per snip) needed to come up with a rationale. They found that uncircumcised boys have a higher rate of urinary tract infections, and are susceptible to cancer of the penis (a rare form of cancer striking one of every 1,333 men that usually begins in the foreskin). The reason foreskin presents a greater disease risk is that some uncircumcised males, particularly in developing countries with poorer hygienic standards, do not properly wash themselves. Bacteria can grow under the foreskin and infect the urinary tract, or human papillomavirus can fester and become carcinogenic. Properly washing the penis can obviate these hazards. The rate of penile cancer in Japan (with it's superior hygiene), for instance, is significantly lower than in the US., despite the fact that a large majority of Japanese men are uncircumcised. Does it make more sense to cut the foreskin off, or learn to keep it clean? 

Many parents give a nod to circumcision because they want their boy to look like other boys or to look like dad. Circumcision rates in the US., however, have dropped to 60%, and in California the rate has fallen below 50%. Uncircumcised boys no longer stand out. No family need feel ashamed that their son's penis looks the way penises naturally look. The most obvious difference between a father's and son's genitals is the presence of pubic hair. Would fathers who want their son's genitals to look like their own consider shaving their pubic hair? Besides, who is looking? 

Other families choose circumcision to follow religious tradition, such as Judaism. Traditions can be very important and meaningful ways for people to bond and share a common identity. Traditions can also carry with them the vestiges of past oppressions. Some Jewish families have begun replacing the brit millah ritual circumcision with "brit shalom", a bloodless baby naming ceremony. This attempt to preserve the spirit of a tradition while filtering out the actual cutting of flesh is still likely to be upsetting to those with strong feelings about their traditions. 

Let us consider, though, how upsetting circumcision must be to the newborn. Physiological studies confirm that babies feel intense pain during circumcision. Anesthesia is not recommended because it carries too great a risk in newborns. Doctors admit that Tylenol does not block the pain. No one knows what it is really like at that age, but some psychologists theorize that circumcision runs counter to a newborn's developmental need to trust in the safety of the world they have arrived in. Others argue that the choice of circumcision should wait until the child is old enough to choose for himself. Do we circumcise newborns because we know that if we waited few would choose it voluntarily? Newborns cannot organize as a group and demand an end to circumcision. But if they could speak, what do you think they would say? MORE

© 2009 Tim Hartnett

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Parents are the bones on which children sharpen their teeth. - Peter Ustinov

Tim Hartnett, MFT is father to Molly at their home in Santa Cruz, CA. Tim also works part time as a writer, psychotherapist and men's group leader. If you have any feedback, or would like to receive the monthly column, "Daddyman Speaks" by Tim Hartnett regularly via email, (free and confidential) send your name and email address to E-Mail Tim Hartnett, 911 Center St. Suite "C", Santa Cruz, CA 95060, 831.464.2922 voice & fax.

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